- Safe Space Out of Place
On June 12, 2016 almost fifty people were killed and more injured in a mass shooting at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In the weeks following, articles and editorials appeared across the mainstream press—including the New York Times, Time, and Newsday as well as innumerable local papers and blogs—describing the event as an attack on a “safe space” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer (GLBTQ) people. Written by activists, academics, and journalists, among others, these pieces often movingly described how the gay nightclub has functioned as a “refuge” or “haven” from hostile families, workplaces, and everyday life.1
As some writers pointed out, Pulse was a safe space not just for GLBTQ people in general, but for those GLBTQ people of color, mostly Latino/as and many Puerto Rican, who made up the majority of those at Pulse that day. In this way, the idea of a safe space was not uniform, and writers beautifully conjured the complex ways in which a sense of community safety is made or undone. News coverage and opinion pieces showcased a wide variety of interpretations of the event and proposed future solutions. Some emphasized the importance of recognizing the specific experiences of GLBTQ Latino/as, whereas others suggested that this was an assault on all GLBTQ-identified people; some called for more gun control, whereas others—including many politicians—used the shooting to promote more anti-terrorism measures; some celebrated the nightclub as a place of freedom, while others focused on how that very feature made it a target.
Despite these different visions, many shared the assumptions that GLBTQ bars and clubs constitute places of security, however tenuous; that an attack on one is an injury to a larger group; and that violence is primarily an index [End Page 121] of hate. These ideas are not new to the response to Pulse, but have provided a long-standing common-sense basis for understanding GLBTQ people as subjects who are always vulnerable to violence and for whom designated spaces might provide protection. These convictions are anchored in a deep history of exploitation and survival: GLBTQ people have forged counter-institutions in the context of social exclusion, targeted attacks, and material and ideological structures that install and reward gender and sexual inequality. Nonetheless, the durability of this narrative has made it difficult at times to think about violence and the regulation of sexual and gender norms outside of this specific frame. This brief response sketches the history of this narrative and considers its implication for understanding Pulse today.
Since before the birth of a social movement or the growth of gay institutions, GLBTQ bars and clubs have facilitated alternative kinship networks and provided crucial resources otherwise privatized within the family or market economy. They host birthday parties and memorial services, so often denied by biological families, and provide health services, such as free HIV-testing or condoms, or act as informal sites of information exchange about prevention and treatment options. Clubs also headline performers blocked from other stages, showcasing styles that too often only find wide audiences and profit once taken up by others. Bars and clubs are also places in which people take collective pleasure in sharing bodies, desires, and gender expressions without the disapproval or punishment often found in families of origin, workplaces, and on the street.
As a result, many GLBTQ people have interpreted attacks on bars as attacks on the larger GLBTQ community, and, in turn, these events have been the grounds for political mobilization. The most famous attack and response was, of course, at the Stonewall Inn, where in the summer of 1969 patrons rose up and fought back against a police raid. Stonewall was by no means the first, nor the last: in 1965, transgender women fought police harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria, a late-night hangout in San Francisco’s Tenderloin; San Francisco activist supporters of slain politician Harvey Milk continued to organize after the police retaliated against protestors with a brutal attack on the Elephant Walk bar in 1979; and in 1982, over 1,100 people turned out to a rally to protest a...